Nothing Makes Howard Sway; Conservative Party Leader Michael Howard Tells Paul Dale Why We Should Be Tougher on Asylum Seekers, Have Fewer University Graduates and Trust Local Councils to Govern in the Best Interests of Their Communities

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Byline: Paul Dale

Michael Howard tucks into his full English breakfast at Birmingham's Burlington Hotel with the gusto of man for whom life at the moment is almost as good as it gets.

Since being returned unopposed as Conservative leader last month Mr Howard has had the good fortune to benefit from two most unusual events.

Firstly, the Conservative Party has edged ahead in the opinion polls after almost ten years in the political wilderness and is in some danger of being taken seriously.

Secondly, Tony Blair is in considerable trouble over university top-up fees and Labour backbenchers are beginning to talk openly about the prime minister's career drawing to an end.

In that scenario, the Tories believe Gordon Brown would become prime minister and Labour's appeal to Middle England, chiefly driven by Mr Blair, would be diminished by the stealth-tax Chancellor.

In many ways Mr Howard gives the appearance of someone who has been given a second chance in life and cannot quite believe his luck.

Condemned not many years ago as one of our most right-wing Home Secretaries, Mr Howard's hard-line record has been more than eclipsed by David Blunkett.

Michael Howard's chances of becoming Tory party leader were negligible two years ago, yet he is now being talked about as a future prime minister.

'Wherever I go everyone is telling me the Conservatives are revitalised. It's incredible,' Mr Howard said.

'I was in Scotland yesterday and we had 550 people at a meeting called at short notice. They couldn't remember the last time they had 550 people at a meeting in Edinburgh.'

This is followed by a customary denunciation of opinion polls -'I don't pay much attention to them' -but the tone of Mr Howard's voice and his relaxed attitude at a media breakfast briefing suggests, for the time being in any case, the Tories' latest leader is better placed than his immediate predecessors to make a decent fist of the job. 'I have a very clear focused objective. I have to win the next election,' he said. 'I am well aware that most people are not interested in politics. They are interested in getting better schools, hospitals and in feeling safe in the streets and at home.

'And in being able to get around conveniently, particularly in this part of the world.

'We are going to improve transport, health and law and order. That will be a priority.'

His theme appears to be about giving people greater freedom of choice over their own lives by removing what the Tories see as unnecessary Government controls, particularly red tape on businesses.

Famed for his forensic debating skills, Michael Howard QC will certainly provide his party with a safe pair of hands. In an hour of conversation he steered clear of controversy, save for a slightly rocky moment on asylum seekers.

Having praised the Tories approach to inclusivity and the selection of Sandy Verma, an Asian woman, to contest Wolverhampton South-west at the next general election, Mr Howard declared: 'There must be no no go areas for the Conservative party. Our candidates are chosen on merit. We don't have women-only short lists or discrimination of any kind.

'I hope we will have many more candidates from ethnic minorities.'

The asylum seeker issue, he insisted, should not be sidetracked by false allegations of racial discrimination thrown against those who dare to question existing policy.

Mr Howard added: 'Many members of the ethnic communities are as exercised about the problem of asylum as anyone else. There is a tremendous unfairness at the heart of the problem.

'A huge number of people who want to come and live in this country do abide by the law. They have to wait and sometimes they find that frustrating.

'They get very frustrated with someone who hides in the back of a lorry, jumps out and says the magic words 'I claim asylum' and is allowed to stay for ever regardless of whether they have a valid claim for asylum. …